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'Amend' Brings History Of The 14th Amendment To Life

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Amend: The Fight For America," now on Netflix, uses animations, lively talking heads and big-name actors to breathe life into hallowed old words, specifically the 14th Amendment ratified in the wake of the Civil War in 1868, here paraphrased by the series' host, Will Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMEND: THE FIGHT FOR AMERICA")

WILL SMITH: The 14th Amendment - it's OK if you don't know it by heart, but it is the center of the promise of America. And it goes something like this. If you're born in the United States, you're a citizen. Pretty simple, right? And under the law, everyone in America gets this thing called equal protection. That means we all have the same rights and the same legal protection, and no one can take those away without due process. That's your day in court.

SIMON: How the 14th Amendment has grown to include African Americans, women, immigrants and marriage equality despite opposition and moral workarounds is at the heart of this six part docuseries. Mahershala Ali, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Laverne Cox and Yara Shahidi portray some of the voices from history. The executive producer of "Amend" is also one of the talking heads in the series - Larry Wilmore, the producer, comedian and podcast host. Mr. Wilmore, thanks so much for being with us.

LARRY WILMORE: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to the 13th Amendment, which, of course, abolished slavery. But it's often confused with the 14th, isn't it? Why did you want to tell this story?

WILMORE: Well, the 14th seems to be an undertold story and an overused application in interesting ways, you know. I didn't really know much about it before I started this, and my eyes were opened to all the many uses that the 14th had, starting with the original one, because freeing the slaves, all it really did was just freed them, but it gave them no standing. And the 14th Amendment for the first time gave slaves standing as citizens. That question of if you are born in this country, you are a citizen, that question had never been posed, had never been answered. No one had ever challenged that assumption, you know, and now to actually put it in the Constitution was revolutionary at the time.

SIMON: Yeah. The series opens with Frederick Douglass front and center, as it should, excited to arrive in New York, walking around as a free man and then realizing not so fast, right?

WILMORE: I'm not that free. Yes. It was important for us to follow Douglass' story first. And we wanted to make sure that it was broad enough to really understand the context of the times, what someone like Douglass and the people that wanted those things, what they were actually up against, you know, what were the obstacles, almost to kind of put flesh and blood on it. And that was kind of our feeling about that first segment.

SIMON: There's an absolutely startling moment. Mahershala Ali gives voice to Frederick Douglass, as the great orator of the times, a July Fourth speech in Rochester. Let's play a clip of it, if we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMEND: THE FIGHT FOR AMERICA")

MAHERSHALA ALI: America is false to the past, false to the present and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Allow me to say in conclusion, I do not despair of this country. The doom of slavery is certain, and I therefore leave off where I began - with hope.

SIMON: You realize at that point what an extraordinary statement of his humanity it is for Frederick Douglass to still harbor hope.

WILMORE: It's one of the most courageous speeches ever on many different levels, Scott. And you're absolutely right. To end it that way after he really lashes out at these people who wanted to hear him speak. They invited him there. You know, he was the...

SIMON: Yeah, they were abolitionists. You're on our side. Yeah.

WILMORE: He was the honored guest. It's like, wait, what? What he does in that speech is he puts flesh and blood on the experience of a slave. He goes into detail about what it even smelled like on a slave ship, what the experience is like and how this celebration of this country is not their celebration. That's your celebration. That's not our celebration because we're not part of it yet, and it's important for us to be a part of it.

SIMON: The amendment was approved in 1868, but it takes a century for successions of movements to win equal rights under the same words - the rights of women, the rights of immigrants, the rights of Black people. We could go on. How could so many people resist a constitutional amendment and, at the same time, how did so many people find hope in it?

WILMORE: Well, you know, the feelings about who the country belongs to were very strong at the time. And the answer to that is white people, you know? And I'm not trying to be flip with that answer, Scott, it's just the way that it was. And it took a lot of time for that notion to change and for those white people who were citizens of the country to know that this country is meant for everybody that is here in equal terms. And, you know, it's funny how the 14th has been there the entire time to both remind people and protect people when those arguments came up. It's really fascinating.

SIMON: I want to ask you about something this week. I think many people have seen and heard the words of Merrick Garland, nominated for attorney general of the United States this week. He said this at one of his hearings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: When my grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution, the country took us in, protected us. And I feel an obligation to the country to pay back.

SIMON: As you note, yes, the Constitution made a place for slavery and persisting segregation, but people found, in the words, something to go on to the kind of country Merrick Garland mentions, didn't they?

WILMORE: That's right. It's one of the ironies of this country. And I think it's why we do love this country because it set from the beginning a promise. Now, because the country's made up of human beings, we didn't always live up to that promise, but because the original human beings were smart enough to write it into the documents, we could use those words to fulfill the promise. I knew a lot of this talk about the 14th Amendment and some of the struggles (ph) not so much as a criticism of this country or an indictment on us but really as a celebration of what really makes this country special, Scott, is that we have this here to ensure - we didn't have to come up with this. It was already there, you know? When it was time to fight for women's rights, the 14th Amendment was already there, you know. We didn't have to invent it. So it's just realizing on that promise. It's when Martin Luther King said that there's a promissory note that has not been paid off yet.

SIMON: Larry Wilmore is executive producer and one of the stars of the six-part series "Amend: The Fight For America." It's now streaming on Netflix. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILMORE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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